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Taking on Arctic Weather Prediction with TAWEPI

The domain covered by the experimental version of the Polar-GEM model, the numerical weather prediction model under development by TAWEPI researchers | Image: Ayrton Zadra© Environment Canada, 2008.For most Canadians, checking the weather forecast is a daily necessity.

Whether wondering about putting on snow tires or grabbing the umbrella, Canadians constantly rely on accurate weather reports to prepare for the ever-changing weather conditions they face.

As it turns out, however, it’s a far greater technological challenge to procure accurate forecasts in Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, than it is in Toronto, Ontario.  At the same time, obtaining information about Arctic weather patterns is becoming increasingly important in an era defined by a rapidly changing climate.

Until very recently, Canada’s northern communities have not experienced the kind of weather forecasting available in Canada’s densely populated southern regions.

That is, until TAWEPI (tah-WEH-pee) -- the Thorpex Arctic Weather Prediction Initiative International Polar Year (IPY) project headed by Environment Canada to improve weather forecasting in the Arctic.

Improving Weather Forecasting in Canada’s North

This image from the Environment Canada Weather Office shows an example of weather forecast products based on numerical predictions generated by the GEM model | Image: Ayrton Zadra ©Environment Canada, 2008.The remote nature of Canada’s North presents significant obstacles to efforts to upgrade northern weather forecasting tools and implement advances in weather prediction that are currently in use elsewhere in the country.

Challenges with limited technology, infrastructure and other resources have impeded efforts to establish baseline weather data for the region. This initial data is essential for developing and improving weather forecasting.

For example, forecasts made 10 days in advance begin with scientists gathering weather data such as temperature, air pressure levels and wind speed and direction.  Various instruments, such as satellites, collect weather data which is fed into Environment Canada’s supercomputer – the largest in the country. Specialized software uses physics-based formulas as a weather predicition model and produces a forecast.

Ten days later, experts assess the accuracy of the forecast. They compare the forecast produced 10 days earlier with the actual weather that happened. Differences are noted, lessons are learned, and the system can be improved.

Likewise, weather prediction models for the Arctic need to have some baseline data before they can be improved.

That’s where TAWEPI comes in.

How it Works

TAWEPI combines weather data and weather forecasting for the Arctic in two main ways: through collaboration with national and international partners conducting research in the North, and through the development of the Polar-GEM model. GEM, or Global Environmental Multiscale, is the name of the forecast model used by Environment Canada’s Canadian Meteorological Centre (CMC).

Research conducted as part of the International Polar Year has shed an unprecedented amount of light on Arctic weather patterns.  The many IPY projects underway are generating a wealth of information. TAWEPI is working with experts from Canada and abroad to share information and collect valuable weather data that will help improve Arctic weather prediction systems.

In collaboration with the CMC, TAWEPI is helping develop the Polar-GEM software model in order to enhance Arctic weather forecasts. This model is a twin of the GEM model currently used by Environment Canada for short-range regional weather forecasts (up to 48 hours).

Global weather prediction models provide forecasts for the entire globe. Regional models like Polar-GEM cover a smaller area -- in this case, all of North America, stretching northward to cover the entire Arctic. By focusing on a smaller area, this model can zoom in for a detailed view of the region -- including, for instance, fine details in topography and coast lines -- hereby providing a higher-resolution picture of Arctic weather.

By extending this high-resolution regional model to the Arctic, TAWEPI experts hope that more accurate forecasts of weather in the Arctic can be issued.

The Arctic Effect

Enhancing weather and environmental forecasting capabilities in polar regions will improve our understanding of the Arctic’s influence on world weather.

World weather affects Canada. For example, although the global ocean-atmosphere phenomenon El Niño starts in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, it nevertheless affects temperature and precipitation in North America. Scientists hope that TAWEPI will show how Arctic weather patterns, in turn, affect the rest of the world.

And because the Arctic is particularly vulnerable to climate change, our ability to understand the relationship between climate change in the Arctic and that in the rest of the world will do much to deepen scientific knowledge surrounding climate change.

IPY: Wrapping up 2008

The theme of this year’s final International Polar Day in December is ‘Above the Poles’, and it focuses on meteorology, astronomy and atmospheric science in polar regions. This theme reflects the work being done by Environment Canada scientists and their international colleagues under TAWEPI and their interest in contributing to improved weather prediction in these areas.

International Polar Year 2007-2008 is a massive international program of scientific research focused on Earth's polar regions. It involves thousands of scientists from more than 60 countries who are involved in more than 200 projects on a wide range of physical, biological and social research topics.

EnviroZine, December 2008

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